Azores. White Light, Black Sands, Shifting Ideas

My top 6 exercises: 1. jumping to conclusions. 2. flying off the handle. 3. carrying things too far. 4. dodging responsibilities. 5. pushing my luck. 6. running late.

São Miguel, Açores

There’s something equally beautiful and strange in living in the Azores, right in the middle of the Atlantic. And by ‘living’ I mean that, for or 5 weeks, I am staying in a typical, small, stone& wood house, in the also small village of João Bom (on the west coast).

I am volunteering for the beautiful permaculture garden of Raquel. I am taking the bus to Ponta Delgada, for a city break, or to Ribeira Grande, and the west coast, with the village of Mosteiros, is at about one hour walking from the house.

If you come here as a tourist, there are definitely many beautiful places to see. Still, if you come here to live – even if temporarily, as myself, you will find an amazing mix of everything you less expected – from both people and places.

A while ago, I stayed in Corsica at somebody that has moved to the island 20 years ago and she always says that ‘living on an island implies a lot of work with yourself, with your true, deep, self’. And I guess that’s the big lesson of the islands. Of any island. But especially of the Azores, as they are (and feel) too far away. So, two weeks before going back to mainland, I need to say that, when coming to São Miguel, either as tourist or as resident – and I’ve already met a few people that left everything and came a long way just to live here, like Emil and Ine, from Denmark, who are in negotiations to buy a piece of land, here, and start their self sustainable dream, or Camile, from France, who’s still looking for an apartment to rent on the north coast – so when coming to São Miguel, the most important thing to keep in mind is to drop all expectations.

Mosteiros, the beach

I still adapt to the daily view of the (pretty weird for me) black sanded beaches, like those of São Roque and Populo, on the south coast, or those of Ribeira Grande, on the north coast. And to lots and lots and lots of rain – it pours cats and dogs every two days.

But if I come at ease with the things not feeling, looking and sounding like the exotic island I had in mind, I find a nice rhythm, and it’s nice to taste the local delicacies, like fish (boca negra or albacore) or seafood (lapas).

The local beer is called Especial and they are producing it since 1893. The cheese is delicious (you can try almost all the local specialties at Rei dos quiejos near Ponta Delgada market). For fresh cheese on bread, there’s also a special local spicy mix or pepper (pimiento do queijo). The local fruit that grow right on the island – pineapples, bananas and avocado – are very juicy.

5 Weeks Away from Mainland

The distance between Lisbon and São Miguel is of 1430 km, equal to 889 miles, or 772 nautical miles – of water. Magic view, wide horizon, strong wind, fresh air, rain, black sand, cobalt-blue waters, lots of green…

The island, like all the others of the archipelago, is a piece of volcano standing above water: black rock topped with vegetation, completely isolated in the middle of the ocean. Until men came here, with ships, since 1432, there were no cats, dogs, cows, no animals except the birds crossing the Atlantic from one continent to another.

The main city is Ponta Delgada. On the west coast, the mountain goes abruptly into the sea except for the area of Mosteiros. The north coast is known for Praia de Santa Barbara and the small city of Ribeira Grande. The mountains are topped by two lakes, one green, one blue, place named Sete Cidades – the Seven Cities.

The Story of the Seven Cities

The islands of Açores were somehow a legend. By 750 A.D., the Iberian Kingdom of the Visigoths was under pressure from Muslim invasions. The Visigoth archbishop fled to Porto-Cale (today’s city of Porto) where he deliberated an escape to the lands in the Western Sea, which sailors insisted they existed. In 734, the archbishop, accompanied by six other bishops, their prelates and approximately 5000 faithful, sailed away in a fleet of twenty ships. The chronicle indicated that the fleet arrived at their destination, burned their ships and established seven Christian communities under the reign of the seven religious leaders.

Although many prepared to follow, the archbishop (if he ever existed) was never heard from again, nor was the route to the mythical lands established. Although there are no proofs that the island of Seven Cities actually existed, the belief of their existence, some tentative expeditions and brief unconfirmed visual sightings of Atlantic islands, fostered legends during the European Middle Ages.

The first discovered island of the Azores was Santa Maria, in 1432, then São Miguel and Terceira (meaning the third) followed, shortly. Settlement didn’t take place right away, though, as there was not much interest among the Portuguese people in isolated islands hundreds of miles away from civilization. 

Few years followed and brush was cleared and rocks removed for the planting of crops. Grain, grape vines, sugar cane, and other plants that could grow here were planted. Cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs were brought, houses were built and villages established. The first settlers were a mix of Portuguese with Moorish prisoners, French, Italians, Scots, English, and Flemish: clergy, soldiers, government officials, merchants or sugar cane growers.

The purpose of the Azores colony was to service the mother country with commodities and tribute. It was to be a station for Portuguese ships to be  resupplied and repaired. The islands too were to produce crops for trade. In its peak trade years, there would be more than one hundred ships anchored at the Bay of Angra.

Because of the isolated nature of the islands, and the harshness of the land, and at times, climate, all settlers, regardless of their background, had to work together to survive. This gave the people a sense of equality and togetherness. As a consequence, more settlers were given the right to purchase land. There were some slaves on the islands, and there were lingering concerns about a slave revolt which no settler wanted. Soon the slaves were sent to Brazil and to the Caribbean.

People from Flanders settled in the Azores beginning in 1450. They played an important role in the creation of the Azores culture: by 1490, the archipelago became known as the Flemish Islands or the Isles of Flanders, and Henry the Navigator was responsible for this settlement. His sister, Isabel, was married to Duke Philip of Burgundy of which Flanders was a part. There was a revolt against Philip’s rule and disease and hunger became rampant. Isabel appealed to Henry to allow some of the unruly Flemish to settle in the Azores. He granted this and supplied them with the necessary transportation and goods. Their language though disappeared before long, and the Flemish settlers changed their names to Portuguese forms. Still, the specific physical traits of light hair, light complexion, and blue eyes can still be seen in the features of many people from the Azores. And the Portuguese language spoken in the islands has a strong Flemish accent.

A Contemporary Museum in the Middle of Nowhere. Arquipélago

Menos é Mais Arquitectos, 2014

Arquipélago was by far the biggest surprise I had. This big contemporary arts centre stands in what used to be a factory of alcohol and tobacco. Some new constructions for performing arts, facilities and artists studios were added to the existing factory, so the Centre acquires its identity by the quiet variation between the preexistence and the two new buildings.

The exhibitions include contemporary Portuguese artists but not only. Here is where I saw, for instance, a great short movie about Le Corbusier’s Modulor, and I am still thinking how was it possible for this specific theme to land so far away from its context – and also: how many of the people living on the island or coming to visit it have seen this?

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